An opinion that surfaces over and over again on the Internet goes something like this:
"The drug companies are very close to a cure for diabetes, but they're hiding it because diabetes drugs and paraphernalia are so profitable for them."
Now admittedly, drug companies, like all companies, are in the business to make money. They're apt to spend more money on research into drugs for common diseases like cancer and diabetes than they are on research into drugs for rare diseases that affect only 100 or 200 new patients a year. This is the reason for the Orphan Drug Act, which rewards drug companies for working on drugs for the less common diseases.
Drug companies sometimes do bad things. But they also do good things. As one blogger (In the Pipeline) wrote when he was working for a drug company: "We're businesses, and we do all kinds of things for all kinds of reasons, which vary from the altruistic to the purely venal. You know, like they do in all other businesses."
Regardless of the motives of Big Pharma, what most people forget is that although the drug companies conduct or fund a lot of research into new drugs, they're not the only ones trying to solve medical puzzles. There's also academic research.
The main difference between drug company research and academic research is the source of funding and the tendency of academic researchers to focus on the root causes of diseases while the drug companies focus on developing new drugs to treat the symptoms. Quite often, the drug companies get ideas for new drugs from the academic research.
Also, scientists working for drug companies have more money to apply to the research, but they mostly have to focus on developing new drugs. Scientists in academia have more freedom to work on problems they find interesting, but they have more difficulty coming up with the funding.
In the long run, it's academic research that will result in curing diseases. Academic researchers will find out why people get diabetes, which will eventually lead to cures. In the long run, this is better than giving people pills to control their symptoms. In the short run, we need the pills, so we need the drug companies.
I used to do academic research myself, as a graduate student, and I even published one paper on my research (Becker GE, Pappenheimer AM Jr. Lyase activity of inducible S8-depolymerases from Bacillus palustris). Things could have changed in the many years since I left that world, but I suspect the basic motivations are still the same:
1. Doing research is fun. Doing scientific research is fun in the same way that doing crossword puzzles or working with Rubik's Cubes is fun. It's a challenge. I used to be amazed that people would actually pay me (a vast $2,400 a year, on which I could live for an entire year) to have so much fun.
Coming into the lab in the morning, or even in the middle of the night, to see how some experiment came out was exciting. Usually the results weren't spectacular, just small clues in a complex puzzle. Sometimes they led to dead ends. Sometimes things went wrong (like the time the cork came out of a huge glass column I was cleaning with concentrated sulfuric acid).